Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Some Day My Prize Will Come: "Cinderella Man" Mixes Grit, Schmaltz, and Gloss


directed by Ron Howard
starring Russell Crowe, Renee Zellweger, Paul Giamatti, Craig Bierko, Paddy Considine, Bruce McGill

When I first saw the trailer for “Cinderella Man,” the friend I was with commented, “It’s just like ‘Seabiscuit,’ but with a man instead of a horse.” And indeed, everything about that trailer, and the way the movie’s been packaged, screams out Oscar bait. Which is a bit of a shame, really, because the movie’s perfectly enjoyable on its own terms without having to contend with the collective weight of Oscars past, present, and prospective. The more so since “Seaboxer”—excuse me, “Cinderella Man”—is just a cut below Oscar consideration, at least as far as any Best Picture hopes are concerned. It’s too formulaic, even for the Academy, and too hamstrung by its own mission to simultaneously rouse, uplift, and jerk more than a few heartstrings.

That’s standard-issue Ron Howard, some might sneer. But there’s little doubt he’s capable of better—one has only to look to “Apollo 13” and the solid, though overpraised, “A Beautiful Mind.” “Cinderella Man” is harnessed in the predictable rhythms of an unimaginative script and the handsome but inert trappings of Hollywood “historical” filmmaking. Its driving force, not surprisingly, lies in the remarkably fluid yet visceral boxing sequences, and the power of its to-die-for cast. Russell Crowe is—well, Russell Crowe. Lord knows I have no affection for the man—tabloid gossip and phone-throwing aside, in interviews and news stories he’s always struck me as a prickly fellow at best, and at worst, a prick, plain and simple. But unlovable as he may be in real life, there’s no denying that he’s one of the greatest actors out there today. He's not a human chameleon, like Daniel Day-Lewis, Ed Norton, or the late Alec Guinness. But in the intensity with which he takes over and *inhabits* a role, makes it his own, yet convinces you that you’re watching Bud White, or Maximus, or Jack Aubrey, rather than Russell Crowe per se, he’s unrivaled. In this—with all due respect to Sean Penn—he’s the closest thing we have to Brando these days.

And “Cinderella Man” is no exception. Crowe plays the quintessential American hero, the quiet man who’s inspired to fight not for glory but for his family. The true story of James J. Braddock is tailor-made for the movies: a promising boxer whose career hits the skids, only to make a miraculous comeback at the nadir of the Great Depression. Only problem is, Braddock by all accounts was a rather dull fellow, personality-wise—certainly much less colorful than his nemesis and reigning heavyweight champion Max Baer (Craig Bierko, reduced to two-dimensional villainy and debauchery in this version of the story). It’s a credit to Crowe rather than the screenwriters that he invests what could have been a colorless archetype with just the right mix of gravity, humor, anger, and tenderness to create a recognizable flesh-and-blood character.

But this isn’t a one-man show. Crowe’s wonderfully supported and very nearly upstaged by Paul Giamatti as the sharp, smooth-talking, yet indefatigably loyal trainer and manager, Joe Gould, who sets Braddock back on the path to victory and stays behind him every step of the way. It’s hands-down the best supporting act I’ve seen so far this year, and should net Giamatti his long-overdue Oscar nomination. Personally, I think he delivers a better performance here than in “Sideways”—it’s nimbler, if less soulful, and a lot more fun to watch. His ringside interactions with Crowe have a crackle and verve that almost makes up for the latter’s wet-noodle marital dynamics with Renee Zellweger. I like Zellweger, scrunchy face and all, but she isn’t given much to do here besides either gaze (sorry, squint) adoringly at her husband or look worried about their precarious economic state or the health of their three adorable kids.

The other big pairing in the movie—Braddock and Baer—sets up a suitably gripping final showdown, mainly because Bierko cuts such an impressive physical presence as Baer. He has looks to kill, literally, and it’s quite possible that he genuinely wanted to kill Crowe by the end of filming—judging from their independent accounts of what was apparently a tense, if not openly hostile, relationship between the two actors, largely imposed by Method Man Russell. (Of course, Bierko, who’s as much a charmer offscreen as Crowe is a churl, referred to the tension in the most diplomatic terms possible, while Crowe, true to form, made it clear that he viewed Bierko as a hack. But that’s neither here nor there.) The one nagging little detail that mars Baer’s fearsome persona is Bierko’s weirdly flat, nasal intonation, which seems peculiar to this movie—I’ve seen and heard him on Broadway, and in other screen roles, and he has a hella sexy voice. Perhaps he was just trying to make his character as unsympathetic as possible.

Too bad, because it’s the distorted depiction of Baer, even more than the Zellweger sap quota, that highlights the film’s worst flaws. The writers could easily have given him a little more shading, to make him a little less loathsome, a little more compelling, while no less lethal, without taking away anything from Braddock’s story. Indeed, the story would seem less canned, the outcome more genuinely in doubt, if the deck wasn’t so heavily stacked against the movie’s designated villain.

As for the historical backdrop—the Depression with the capital D—it’s given the Hollywood polish treatment, yet there’s something oddly effective, if slightly unreal, about its artfully cast shadows and Hopper-esque canvases of cold, poverty, and pugilism. For all its artificiality, it does convey a sharp, if overly prettified reminder of how bad things really could (and did) get, which is as good an advertisement for the New Deal as the Democrats can hope for these days. Some critics have read an anti-socialist slant into the movie, in the character of a friend and fellow dockworker (played by “In America”’s Paddy Considine) who demonstrates fatal propensities towards alcoholism, violence, and Communism, and is clearly meant to be a foil to Braddock, who seems to have no vices and shows deep-seated resistance to going on the dole. In fact, however, the movie ultimately passes no judgment on either man’s choices. “Cinderella Man” is unquestionably a paean to the all-American virtues of the self-reliant man, and an idealized portrayal of the triumph of such a man over adversity. But it’s also, in its own limited and airbrushed way, a portrayal of that adversity—the same that afflicted millions of Americans, less fortunate than Braddock, and that gave his victory a special resonance for them.

RATING: ** 1/2


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